RALEIGH — Wake County's debate about where its schools are headed grew inflammatory Thursday as leaders compared their opponents to animals, criminals and racists.
The traded charges of ethnic slurs, and pleas for more temperate language, sprang from a remark by Ron Margiotta, the board chairman and leader of its new majority, at Tuesday's contentious school board meeting.
"Here come the animals out of the cages," Margiotta said when opponents vocally disagreed with Bill Randall, a black conservative who had spoken in support of the board.
Margiotta's low-voiced comment passed mostly unnoticed. But a videotape posted on the Internet has gotten wide circulation. The board's new majority has moved to end the district's policy of busing students to ensure economic diversity, and opposition to that has been intense.
In an interview Thursday, Margiotta said he was "out of line." He said he was upset with the negative reaction to speakers who voiced support for a resolution directing the system to create community assignment zones.
Speakers on both sides of the community schools resolution were jeered at the meeting Tuesday. But critics of the resolution were in the majority and were more vocal. A final vote on the issue is set March 23 .
"If I offended anyone, it was not intended," Margiotta said Thursday. "It was said in the heat of the moment."
The Rev. William Barber, state leader of the NAACP, has called a news conference today to respond to Margiotta's remark. Barber has threatened to sue the school system if the board adopts policies that he thinks will lead to racial resegregation.
NAACP leader offended
"We're deeply, deeply troubled that the chairman referred to citizens as animals," Barber said Thursday. "It not only has derogatory implications, but it has racial implications."
In an interview Tuesday, Barber himself compared Margiotta, who is of Italian descent, and his board allies to the Mafia.
"This is not a dictatorship," Barber said. "This is not a gang. This is not a Mafia meeting. This is a democratic process."
Margiotta could not be reached to respond to Barber's Mafia comment.
Barber was upset that Margiotta had limited speakers to two minutes, a minute less than usual. The civil rights leader was also upset Tuesday that Margiotta had interrupted the Rev. Curtis Gatewood, second vice president of the state NAACP, who had called Margiotta a "white racist."
Barber said calling people animals was far worse than his Mafia remark.
Board member John Tedesco, an ally of Margiotta and grandson of an Italian immigrant, said he was disappointed with Barber's remarks.
"It's not helpful to the community," Tedesco said. "If we could get the temperature down it would help."
Randall, a resident of Wake Forest who is making a bid for a U.S. House seat this year, said Thursday that he was perplexed by the NAACP's reaction to Margiotta's remark at the meeting.
"The predominant race there was not African-American; I don't know why the NAACP would make a stink over it," said Randall, who did not hear Margiotta's remark. "Whenever you are losing out in the arena of ideas, you look to make an issue of anything you can."
Raleigh resident Brenda Berg, an activist and opponent of the new board majority, said Margiotta's remark illustrated attitudes about board opponents that Margiotta had sought to conceal.
"For someone who watches what he says carefully, it reveals the truth about what he is thinking," Berg said.
Hold the vitriol
Claude E. Pope Jr., chairman of the Wake County Republican Party, called for more moderate language in the continuing debate. Pope supported the board's four new members against their Democratic-backed opponents in the elections last fall.
"I can tell you I don't think he meant anything by the rhetoric," Pope said of Margiotta's remark.
"There has been a lot of very vitriolic rhetoric directed toward us. If you can't discuss the merits of how you educate children and you can only start name-calling, your grounds for trying to make your case just go out the window."
Berg said the majority board members helped create a contentious atmosphere by ignoring speakers who disagreed with them Tuesday.
"I think that everybody's irritated," she said. "I feel like they should be selling popcorn and cotton candy at these things.
"I went to the circus last week and it wasn't nearly as wild as the board meetings."
firstname.lastname@example.org or 919-829-8929